Thursday, May 3, 2018
Rene and Jamie don’t see themselves as “transgender”: Rene describes himself as a Southern gentleman, a Mexican American from Texas; Jamie calls herself an American girl, a country singer from Kentucky whose hands are as dexterous on her guitar as they are building cabinets in the home she shares with her partner, Lisa. Though both Rene and Jamie made the decision to undergo hormone treatment and gender-affirmation surgery and have been living as their affirmed genders for over a decade, the subjects of Emmy-winning journalist and filmmaker Emily Abt and Bruce Hensel’s documentary, Beyond the Opposite Sex, remind audiences that “transition” is a verb, not a catchall definition to describe every person living with gender dysphoria.
Beyond the Opposite Sex follows up on the 2004 documentary series The Opposite Sex, which introduced audiences to Rene and Jamie. Hensel, the chief medical correspondent for NBC, was pitched many stories about the trans experience in America, most of which focused on the drama of “coming out.” But Hensel wanted to tell a story about the actual transition, from hormone treatment to surgery and life beyond. Hensel contacted surgeons and physicians from around the world who treat patients with gender dysphoria to find subjects for his film. He received hundreds of applications, but Rene and Jamie, Hensel felt, were ready to let him and his crew deeply into their lives. The Opposite Sex followed Rene and Jamie as they managed work, romance, and family in relation to their transitions. Fifteen years later, Hensel returned to middle America to catch up with his subjects and further explore their stories in a social climate vastly different than when Rene and Jamie began their journeys across gender.
In a recent interview with the Independent, Hensel said that while Beyond the Opposite Sex features Rene and Jamie’s experiences, the film has two other undeniable main characters: middle-American culture and the shift in how society understands and treats the transgender experience. The documentary introduces a new generation of transgender people — many of whom have the unfaltering support of their families and friends — who are further redefining the culture. The film presents a broad spectrum of people living within the trans experience, from Rene, the alpha male, to Maddie, a young trans student who feels that activism is absolute in her identity, to Jamie, who doesn’t see herself as trans but as a woman, to Penny, a radical feminist who takes the position that Jamie can never be entirely female because her early life wasn’t informed by the experiences of a biological female. The interaction between Penny and Jamie is Hensel’s favorite moment in the film. “She’s so settled in who she is,” Hensel said of Jamie. “She doesn’t even get flustered.”
Hensel’s film reminds audiences that the trans experience is varied and multifaceted, and the people within its sphere are defined by more than their gender. While the film focuses on issues particular to the trans community, it also shows the ordinary moments in Rene and Jamie’s life, from target practice in the backyard of Jamie and Lisa’s home to Rene pursuing a degree in psychology. The struggles they face in their lives and relationships are relatable across genders and cultures, further illustrating that beyond their transition, Rene and Jamie are simply people in the world trying to find happiness. “In film, you have to have an arc. Both Rene and Jamie had loss,” Henley said of his subjects’ failed marriages. Rene’s first marriage fell apart due, at least in part, to the issue of his infertility; Jamie got divorced after she made the decision to transition to female. “Finding love was crucial for them,” said Henley.
Beyond the Opposite Sex reinforces the idea that while transitioning is certainly a major life event, the people who take this step are defined by their character — not by their experience with gender affirmation. The documentary premiered on Showtime this spring.